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Forbidden City Concert Hall

Certainly, there has been a proliferation of organs sailing and flying from the U.S. to Asia in recent years. For example, a number of Fisks and Noacks sent to Japan, Reuters and Wicks to Korea, but... China? This country and culture are among the few, in this ever-shrinking world, that retain an aura of mystery, and perhaps even an element of suspicion. For this organbuilder, entering into this venture was an object lesson in patience, pride, and friendship.

Perhaps surprisingly, the new Austin is not the first pipe organ in Beijing, neither is it the first Austin organ in China. A Rieger-Kloss reposes at the Beijing Concert Hall, and a brand-new Oberlinger was just inaugurated at the China National Radio Station. In the 1930s, Austin shipped two organs to Shanghai (then a Western-settled treaty port). Both went into houses of worship (a Christian Science church and a Community Church) and both were removed and junked at the time of the revolution. (A Chinese tourist guide lists the of ficial religion as atheist). The organ chamber at the Christian Science church now serves as a storeroom for medical texts.

The Forbidden City Concert Hall (formerly known as the Beijing Music Hall, Zhongshan Park) is situated inside the walls of the Forbidden City, among the well-manicured gardens of Zhongshan Park, directly adjacent to Tiananmen Square. The old hall was gutted, save for some large stone pillars; the rebuilt hall was built by raw manpower, with crews working 24 hours a day. The finished product is breathtaking-thick marble columns with matching floors, sparkling chandeliers, state-of-the-art audio/video equipment. The decor is on the modern side, more simple and elegant than ornate. The acoustics are quite good in spite of the padded seats and aisle carpeting. There is an abundance of new, shiny, hard surfaces.

The organ is front and center stage on a platform twelve feet above stage level. A movable console was provided, finished in gleaming Steinway black. The organ case, designed entirely by Austin Organs Inc., was built of beechwood by the Beijing Fine Furniture Company.

The client, the Beijing Culture Bureau, was without opinion regarding size or specification. We knew little except that, when complete, this would be the main performing venue for the Beijing Symphony Orchestra. Hence, an eclectic stoplist with symphonic leanings was authored by company President Kimberlee Austin. The scheme wound up being accepted with no change.

The Culture Bureau sent a contingent to Hartford; although no contract was signed at that time, it seemed likely that Austin would be chosen. A group from Hartford then visited Beijing. After more than two weeks of negotiation meetings, numerous banquets featuring genuine Chinese delicacies, and innumerable other unforgettable experiences, the contract detail was finally agreed, at 4:00 A.M. If we'd thought some things had been "lost in the translation" previously, we had another awakening! Once we discovered that communication via drawing was the best understood, things went much more smoothly. The buyers were naturally very curious. It was nearly impossible to deal with them because of translation losses, unfamiliarity with the "American way" of doing things, and, last but not least, organ terminology.

Crated for the ocean voyage, three 40-foot containers left the Hartford loading dock on July 24, 1999. The scheduled date of arrival in China came and went. After many inquires, the crates were found in Korea. Finally, they arrived at the wrong port in China and, a*er the local customs had their way with them, the crates were eventually delivered to Beijing. They were then unloaded into the basement of the hall to await the expertise of the organbuilders. The only things "missing" from the load were a case of good Scotch and almost all of the 28-lb. reservoir springs. The latter was not so easily overcome.

In October 1999, the installation team arrived. Led by newly appointed Chinese rep Alan McNeely, the group (comprised of Michael Vater, Paul Marchesano, and Hong Kong resident Robert Hope-Jones) managed magnificently under adverse and challenging conditions. The job was completed some six weeks later.

In late April 2000, a group from Hartford returned to Beijing for the inauguration of the instrument. International concert artist Carol Williams was selected from a large field of candidates to do the honors. Others in the group had their work cut out for them: the construction dust had now settled, as well as the ashes from the recent eruption of a Japanese volcano that had blown into town. The organ was thick with gritty dirt. Happily (and predictably), the Austin chest action proved indifferent to the situation. The few precious hours available for tuning and practice were shared by technicians and the artist. A few hours were made available for recording. A compact disc of the organ, played by Miss WIlliams, will be released on the Melcot label in late 2000 or early 2001.

Two events were planned, one with symphony and one organ solo. Both concerts were very well attended, and the varied program proved quite popular with the audience. It is safe to say that well over half of the people attending hadn't ever seen or heard a pipe organ before. Many of the audience members were children, who appeared to be especially mesmerized by Miss Williams's rendition of The Washington Post March.

According to Carol Williams, "My very first visit to China was memorable for a number of reasons. First, there was the experience of the completely different culture and the opportunity to perform in Beijing's Forbidden City Concert Hall, which was only a few minute's walk through the beautiful gardens of Zhongshan Park and Tiananmen Square. Further, there was the honor of walking on to the stage to bring to life a brand-new organ, which responded superbly to the most subtle of registrations and produced truly magnificent sounds. Yet, because of the lack of an organ tradition in China, it was difficult to draw up programs that were suitable for such a historic occasion, one that would be acceptable to an audience that had not previously savored music played on the King of Instruments. The choice ultimately became a selection of popular works by Widor, Bach, Jeremiah Clarke, and Franck, together with a lighter element in the form of music by Sousa and Joplin. Throughout the visit, there was much filming plus numerous photographs and interviews with magazines and television. Certainly a great honor was the opportunity to work with the Beijing Symphony Orchestra under the expert conducting of the muchbeloved Tan Lihua to present a fine performance of the Saint-Saens Third Symphony, a composition that highlighted the excellence of the Austin organ and its installation."

With the increasing popularity of Western music and culture in Beijing, it is a most satisfying feeling to know that the pipe organ will no longer be a joy unknown to the citizens of the People's Republic of China.